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Chapter Eight


Our remaining three types are the frightened or fear-filled, the law-abiding, and the discontented.

The "fear-filled" were of two sorts: those with a wrong kind of fear of God and his Judgements; and those who were afraid that if they looked too closely at their beliefs, they would not stand up to the test.

Those with the wrong kind of fear of God, of whom there were considerable numbers, were suffering from the last traces of Jansenism Calvinism in a Catholic guise, which entered the Church in the 17th century. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. But if we are trying to serve Him, our fear should have the quality of filial awe rather than slavish dread.

As a heresy, Jansenism was driven out in the 18th century; but as a spiritual taint or predisposition it survived well into the 20th. France was its home, and from France, through Ireland, it got a firm hold in the English-speaking world. God's chief remedies were devotion to the Sacred Heart, St. Thérèse of Lisieux's doctrine of spiritual childhood, and the introduction of frequent Holy Communion by St. Pius X. But the remedies had not been applied as widely as they should have been.

With its one-sided emphasis on God's justice and punishments, Jansenist spirituality tended to chill love, cramp generosity of soul, and encourage scrupulosity a preoccupation with spiritual trifles. It was also responsible for uncatholic ideas about marriage and sex, and so to some extent for the violent rejection of any kind of restraint in this area. Calvinism has produced similar reactions within Protestantism.

The romantic movement, with its love of the sombre, the sinister and the lugubrious, had also influenced Catholic thinking and attitudes in a way that contributed to making the Church appear overly preoccupied with sin, sadness, evil and death. Priests influenced by Jansenism tended to be moral rigorists. Moral rigorism is an inclination to see most sins as serious ones. There is nothing to be said for it except that moral laxity or indifference is worse. All sin matters; but not all sins are of the same gravity. The temptation for the rigorist, if faith starts to decline, is to weary of his exacting work and swing to the opposite extreme. What a relief from the strain of seeing and  fighting sin everywhere to see practically no sin anywhere!

From the world of moral rigorism have come some of today's leading moral revisionists. The late Fr. Bernard Haering, a Redemptorist and peritus at Vatican II, is an example. Priests of the Redemptorist order used to be renowned for their strictness (though their founder, St. Alphonsus Liguori, was an apostle of gentleness in the confessional). After the Council, as he travelled the world explaining to Catholics on which points they could qualify their adherence to the Church's teaching about the use of their procreative powers, Fr. Haering's expenses must have been a considerable item in his order's budget.1

The reaction against Jansenist spirituality partly accounts for the present rather desperate insistence on God's love (as though it had never been heard of before), on the Resurrection in contrast to the Passion (even by people who doubt the Resurrection's reality), and on the idea that every religious occasion ought to be a "celebration" (even Lent is to be seen as a season of rejoicing). Though other things have played a part, with many Catholics these particular shifts of emphasis represent a confined attempt to recover a proper balance between what ought to be two fundamental Christian attitudes joy and gratitude for the blessings of this world and the next, and sorrow for what we do along the way. In deeply Catholic countries, I would say, the balance had never been seriously disturbed.

Catholics frightened of looking too closely at their beliefs, belonged mainly to the professional classes. Not intellectually inquiring outside their own special fields, they were busy all day earning their livings, and by the evening were tired and wanted diversion.

What they feared was finding that the Church was asking them to believe "the impossible". They did believe, and they wanted to go on believing. But the only way they felt they could hang on to their beliefs was to keep them in a state of arrested development. Instead of informing themselves about their religion and facing up to any problems, they hid from them. They allowed their knowledge of their religion to remain at school catechism level, a condition deplored by Pius XII in the 1950s. Every Catholic's knowledge of his religion, he said, should be at the same level as the rest of his education. They were in a true sense in need of a mature or adult faith.

There is less to say about the law-abiding. Many were perhaps barely hanging on to the faith. For these, religion tended to be a matter of painfully keeping the moral law by their own efforts; they were all but Pelagians without knowing it. God, an unpredictable taskmaster, had few if any attractions; and heaven, where they expected to feel out of their element, was scarcely looked  forward to either, except that it was preferable to hell. Habit helped to keep them in the Church. When habit was disrupted, the links with the Church were easily snapped.

Others in this category had a better understanding and greater appreciation of the faith, even if it contained a strong dash of stoicism. Their religion mattered to them and they practised it faithfully, if without great joy. Wise priests recognised their merits. In the present crisis, they have often held on to their beliefs better than more conspicuously religious types. But because they did not usually take much part in parish activities, they were not always valued as they should have been. Also, having been brought up at a time when every parish priest taught more or less what the Church taught, so that opposing the priest on faith or morals seemed equivalent to disagreeing with the Pope, they have tended to stay in the background in a state of perplexity. The thought of having to oppose a bishop would seem even more horrendous. Better instructed, they might have developed into fervent joyful Catholics equally good at commending and defending the faith joyful, moreover, with the real spiritual joy of the saints and holy Italian chambermaids, not the rather self-conscious worked-up joyfulness which is often such an embarrassing feature of the present religious scene.

I come fourthly and lastly to the discontented.

Again we can speak of two kinds. Some were discontented because they were finding the laws of marriage too great a strain. The pressure on the clergy to allow birth control did not begin in the 1960s. "Father, you don't know what it's like. If you were married and had six kids . . ." It was not always the penitent who was on the receiving end in the confessional when unpleasant things were said. If in the past the clergy at times complained about having to hear confessions, as some did, this was no doubt one of the reasons.

What was the priest with the outlook of a spiritual technician to do in circumstances like these? It was then principally that he failed his sheep. He had nothing to offer them. How could he persuade them that grace and prayer can be all-conquering, or that the acceptance of suffering is part of the Christian vocation, when these things meant so little to him personally? He could only lay down the law, angrily or half-heartedly. In this encounter in the confessional, priest and penitent unconsciously administered a dose of scepticism to each other about the wisdom and certainty of the Church's teaching. When the revolution breaks out, the spiritual technicians will be the first and loudest in their complaints that the Church had turned the faith into a set of rules, though they themselves will have had a share in making it appear like that.

The discontented of the second kind came from a very different world that of cultured Catholics interested in literature and the arts. They represented only a section of that world, but it was to become a highly influential and vociferous section. They were exposed to many of the same temptations as the Catholic scholarly world. They were beginning to feel the tension between Catholicism and modern culture in a conscious and direct way.

The difficulty for cultured Catholics of any period is that culture or the enjoyment of its fruits can become a rival religion pulling the heart in opposite directions. In a way, any strong interest can do it; gardening or stamp-collecting. But a love of art, literature and ideas poses special problems because they often impinge directly on religious belief. Many educated Christians in the last centuries of the Roman empire, like St. Basil and the Gallo-Roman poet Ausonius, felt this two-way pull between their faith and a great culture whose foundations were not Christian. The foundations of contemporary Western culture are partly Christian, partly not. The same can be said of what has been built on top of them, and I shall not try to determine here which is the greater part. The fact remains that unless today's cultivated Catholic has, like St. Basil, a strong faith, culture is likely to be the stronger attraction, as it was for Ausonius.

When that happens, the cultivated Catholic comes to feel more in sympathy with the ideals and aims of his cultivated non-Catholic friends than with the mass of his fellow Catholics, and starts looking at the Church through the critical eyes of those friends as though he were himself an unbelieving outsider.

Why, he wonders fretfully, does his religion contain so much that he finds embarrassing: reactionary cardinals, conservative bishops, ignorant peasants, negative attitudes, miracles, indulgences, Latin-style devotions, things like holy water obviously connected with magic? Why is the Church not more progressive, less anti-communist, more anti-fascist, less frightened of sex and science, more in favour of modern art . . . ?

It is true that Catholic of this kind recognised the need for a more discriminating approach to certain contemporary ideas and problems, and that was to their credit. Their criticisms of some of the attitudes I have been describing were also just the narrow-mindedness of Bishop X, the belligerence of Fr, Y, the pettiness of Reverend Mother Z. But neither the defects of individuals or groups were, I believe, the fundamental cause of their discontent. Later events suggest the fundamental cause lay in the nature of the Church and is teachings: the fact that the Church is a monarchy, though of a very special kind, in an age of democracy God three-in-One, is a monarch  (should one say "unfortunately"?); that in an age of science the Church teaches mysteries which cannot be proved by experiment the mind has to humble itself to accept them; that in the area of faith and morals the Church asks for obedience when all around are insisting on unrestricted liberty. How were these things to be explained away to cultured non-Catholics over the dinner table or at the literary cocktail party?

Discontented cultured Catholics were like a field newly ploughed and raked, waiting for the revolutionary theologians to sow their seed.

When with the election of Pope John, the subject of reform is broached, they will immediately interpret reform as getting rid of these "embarrassments".

* * *

Such, it seems to me, were the principal shortcomings of the Catholic people in the West on the eve of the Council. Nothing sensational. At every period of the Church's history there has been a fair degree of social conformism, complacency, tepidity, minimal practice, lack of apostolic zeal, and the spirit of routine. How, then, could these things have done so much damage without anyone noticing? The effects seem out of all proportion to the causes.

At least before the Reformation, and again before the French revolution, symptoms of decadence absentee bishops, clergy with concubines, sale of ecclesiastical offices, the revenues of monasteries and convents diverted into the pockets of laymen had been visible to all and a catastrophe expected for a long time.

On the other hand, as Pope Paul remarked, before the Second Vatican Council there was little if anything of that sort to complain about. Order and regularity of life prevailed. The irregularities and disorders sacrilegious masses, priests and nuns cohabiting, clergy wielding sten-guns have followed the reform. The normal sequence of events has been reversed. This is what many people find so perplexing. 2

What then is the explanation?

We can perhaps find the beginnings of one in the social climate of post-renaissance Europe. Through the influence of Protestantism and the rise of modern science, increasing importance came to be attached to the spirit of system and orderly public behaviour. As a result, in addition to their real and great achievements, the Counter-Reformation and the 19th-century religious revival had an unexpected side effect. Large numbers of Catholics in the culturally dominant countries of northern Europe and North America were,  for the first time in history, made respectable. It took four hundred years and considerable effort. Respectability is a very un-catholic thing. Much of it was the result of not wanting to let the side down in front of the separated brethren and non-believers. But at last the work was done. Most of the grounds for non-Catholic criticism of Catholic nations that had been such a cause of inferiority complexes tumble-down presbyteries, gravy-stained cassocks, beggars crowding the church porches, general irregularity and apparent inefficiency had at last, it seemed, (if you forgot about Sicily and such like blots on the landscape) been done away with or swept under the rug and we were proud of it. 3

In France, Germany, the Low Countries, North America and Australia, if nowhere else, a Catholic could hold up his head with the best of his Protestant and unbelieving neighbours. But our hard-won respectability had disguised from the greater part of the world and ourselves the essential fact; how much less most of us cared about God than we appeared to.

The new theologians, however, were not among those bemused by the grand facade. So it is now time to look at the Council "new orientations" and developments which were to remedy the defects just described and, it was hoped, close the "gap between faith and life". They affected five areas of belief: the nature and mission of the Church as a whole; its government by Pope and bishops; the role of lay people; the relationship of the Church to other Christians and other religions; and finally the relationship between the Church's mission of salvation and men's earthly activities, or between the history of salvation and the history of civilisation and progress.

Notes to Chapter Eight

1. That the way some manuals of moral theology presented their material was open to criticism may have been true. A much used manual before the Council has been blamed, for example, for hardly ever quoting Scripture though the same charge can be brought against Fr. Karl Rahner. However, revising the method of presentation does not justify trying to revise the content. The tragedy in Fr. Haering's case is that his The Law of Christ, written before the Council, is widely considered to have given a valuable "freshening" to moral theology. A decade or so later in his Morality is for Persons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971) he was writing "If . . . we offer youth only a 'holy rule' that remains forever 'as it was in the beginning' having no pertinence here and now, then our appeal will only be to sick people suffering from a security complex." Reviewing the book for the U.S. Catholic monthly Triumph in November 1971, Fr. Vincent Miceli S.J. attributed the transformation to an overdose of Heidegger,Teilhard de Chardin, Sartre and Bultmann.

2. It is curious in a way that dissenting theologians should have taught Catholics to deplore everything supposedly emanating from the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, seeing that it was Trent which, by tightening up ecclesiastical discipline, put an end to most of the irregularities and scandals which are supposed to have provoked and justified the Protestant revolt.

3. For Newman's riposte to Protestant criticisms of Catholic nations see his Difficulties of Anglicans.Vol. I, Part II.

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Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2017

Version: 21st March 2017

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